The first meeting of part-time San Antonio residents Sara Elisa Lopez and Gabriel Alvarez Lorenzo seems like something straight from a romance movie.
Both were avid travelers and both were thousands of miles from home — she's from the Rio Grande Valley and he's from Galicia, Spain — and caught each another's attention on Ipanema Beach while exploring Rio de Janeiro. Cue Antônio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "The Girl from Ipanema."
"We met so serendipitously," Lopez recalled during a recent interview with the Current. "I was walking along the beach and I just I felt him ... it was like I saw someone I had already known. ... It freaked me out a little bit ... so I didn't say anything."
Instead, the girlfriend Lopez was visiting in Brazil broke the ice by inviting Lorenzo to sit with them. Casual conversation led to the pair spending the following day together, then Lorenzo had to catch his flight back to England, where he was working at the University of Cambridge.
Lopez and Lorenzo stayed in touch and eventually made plans to reunite.
"It sounds so romantic, it's funny, but we met up again in Corsica in the Mediterranean," Lopez said. "We spent a week there and really decided, OK, this is something serious. And after that, we decided, let's meet up again and travel. He decided to quit his job ... and I was doing freelance stuff at the time [but] didn't quite have a direction..."
The pair set their sights on Latin America and started their journey in Mexico.
"That's really where the idea for everything started to come," Lopez explained.
The "everything" in question is The Jungle Journal — an adventurous project designed to chronicle their travel experiences while shedding light on global issues from ecology and social justice to spirituality and indigenous activism. Built around Lorenzo's background in environmental science, Lopez's design background and their shared passion for photography, the endeavor began as a documentary that got transformed by the pandemic.
"We were in Cuba when that happened," Lopez recounted. "That was a very clear memory for me ... the president saying [that] all foreigners have 72 hours to leave this country. We were in Havana for six days and then we went to Villa de Leyva, which is a small tobacco town. And it was there that everything changed. ... The world was shutting down. So, we had to scramble and we weren't able to walk away with what we wanted from Cuba. We had to quarantine in Mexico — because the U.S. wasn't taking EU citizens, nor was the EU taking U.S. citizens. It was the only place we could stay together and figure out how we were going to move forward with our project. ... And that's where it shifted from documentary to publication."
The duo launched a Kickstarter campaign and started converting footage into print stories by transcribing interviews and isolating video stills.
"We were able to meet our goal by the end of the month," Lopez said. "And in August, we went into production with everything. That accountability was nice — because we had to deliver this to all of the supporters. That was a nice push to really get this all done."
Self-published in 2020, the inaugural issue of The Jungle Journal is an impressive-looking volume with sections dedicated to Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Cuba. The design is sophisticated, the photography compelling and the writing approachable and, at times, incredibly personal. Among the standouts are vibrant portraits of members of Brazil's Aldeia Tatuyos community and an enlightening interview with a Peruvian shaman named Yurakmayo. The founders — who now divide their time between San Antonio and Spain — also explore their own cultural identities through thoughtful essays. Although raised in different parts of the world, both grew up in borderlands and share multicultural sensibilities.
Nearly a year after publishing Vol. 1, the couple hit the road again. After weighing their options, they settled on East Africa, which was relatively open and accepting foreigners. As they explain in the "Note from the Founders" that introduces Vol. 2, they arrived in Africa in October, 2021. "We traveled through Uganda, driving ourselves by car, experienced Kenya through the eyes of the Samburu and Maasai people, and finally found ourselves on a train in transit from Arusha to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania."
Significantly smaller in size than the book-like first volume, the second iteration of The Jungle Journal feels tighter and more focused. Both founders prove themselves as astute photographers and storytellers. Of particular interest is Lopez's story about Ride 4 a Woman, a nonprofit employing and empowering women in Buhoma, Uganda. The founders' collaborative story "A Tribal Experience with the Samburu People" also makes for compelling reading. An intriguing twist amid the digital-first media landscape, the stories in The Jungle Journal are intended to be read in print and aren't published online.
One concept that trickles through both editions is cultural tourism — specifically the types of paid experiences that invite visitors into indigenous communities and tribal gatherings.
The Jungle Journal founders contextualize these cultural experiences in the Vol. 1 story "The Impacts of Globalization and Industrialization on Amazonian Communities."
"Today, it is easy to book a tour with an indigenous group, visiting their land, seeing their rituals and traditional dress, buying their artisanal work," Lopez and Lorenzo write.
"As an outsider visiting another's land, there is an obligation to respect and honor differences and educate ourselves prior to visiting these spaces. These communities provide mind-expanding experiences to tourists as they display their face paint, rhythmic dances and chants. When tourists head back to their lives, and everyone calls it a day, you will see the communities transition back into their shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops: the standard for Brazil."
"There is that component," Lopez said of their cultural exchanges in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Kenya. "I feel there's a fine line, though, where it becomes this commercialization. As visitors, we have that responsibility to look for that authenticity — and to respect that authenticity — and not ask for a show. ... And you also see [that] we're in the 21st century. Unless it's an uncontacted tribe, they have phones, they have Instagram, they have Facebook, they use YouTube. [Especially] with the younger generations, [there is] that relatability, that intersection of living in the digital age, but also still holding to their customs. ... And that, I think, is the ticket of keeping a lot of these things alive without having to resort to moving to the city and working a tech job or another kind of metropolitan job. They can still do what they want, where they come from, and make a living off of it. It's sharing and keeping alive their culture."
The next edition of the annual journal — which is carried by an impressive array of stockists across the U.S., Mexico, Europe and Asia — will focus on the Philippines and Indonesia. While Lopez and Lorenzo have created the bulk of The Jungle Journal's content so far, they are looking forward to accepting relevant pitches for Vol. 3, which is set for publication in early 2023.
"That was our goal: to get to that point where we would be taking submissions," Lopez explained. "Now that we have gained a good footing of other logistics of the magazine, we're able to release the reins more on the editorial content and allow other people to come in and contribute. Because ultimately, that's what we want. In the beginning, it was more [about] how we saw things and the people we met. But our goal is to grow it more into a collaborative community."
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